Swiss Family Documenting Climate Change in 16-Year Expedition

Oct 28, 2016

With 100,000 nautical miles behind them, a Swiss family sailed into Maine this week as it continued on a 16-year expedition to document climate change. Their journey has taken them from ocean to mountaintop in a quest to report on climate change at all altitudes and find some solutions.

Dario Schworer decided to set out to explore climate change with his wife, Sabine, nearly two decades ago because, he says, as a Swiss mountain guide, he noticed that his office was melting away.

“So we climb glaciers and mountain peaks, and you know, they’re held together by permafrost, and already in the ’90s, in the Swiss Alps, they were falling apart,” he says.

The Schworers set out on a 50-foot sailboat called Pachama — Inca for “Mother Earth” — to circumnavigate the globe, dubbing their expedition “Top to Top.” Traveling by sailboat, bicycle and foot, they’ve scaled the highest peaks on six continents.

An explorer at heart, Dario would normally be excited to blaze new trails. But on their recent trip through the Arctic’s Northwest Passage, as they sailed through, uninhibited by ice, they had a different feeling.

“So we opened a new route, and that may be exciting for you, but it’s sad for us. It demonstrates how much ice is gone up there,” Dario says.

Just a hundred years ago, Sabine says, a Norwegian explorer was trapped in ice in the same area.

“I mean, they were freezed in, and we were even bathing in this water. And then, I really realized how big this climate change is,” she says.

Dario, Sabine, and their five children — all born during the expedition and under the age of 12 - have also witnessed climate change’s effects on communities: Inuits who have lost hunting grounds due to melting ice, Pacific islands that are disappearing under water and shrinking water sources in the Andes.

The Schworers in the Northwest Passage recently.
Credit toptotop.org

“We have seen communities where the glacier is gone in the back of the valleys so they have no water left to plant, and the little water left is so contaminated,” Dario says.

The Schworers have also experienced climate change firsthand in their 16 years traversing the world’s oceans, where they say storms have become more violent and frequent. And they’re also surprised at the sheer amount of trash, especially plastic, that they encounter along the way.

“It’s so much plastic in the oceans. And we think, oh, we don’t see. But it’s so much there. Every hour, we would see a lot of plastic,” Sabine says.

Plastic visible to the eye, Dario says, and small particles in the water as well.

“We took also water samples to measure microplastic in the Northwest Passage, and there’s already plastic up there. And it’s really bad, you know? This plastic ends up in our food chain,” he says.

Along with documenting problems, the family says its also in search of solutions. They praised programs in Maine that help insulate homes, as well as a project in Portland that will install a solar array on a landfill to power city hall.

The Schworers' climbing party on Mont Blanc in 2000.
Credit toptotop.org

The Schworers have relied on renewable solar and wind power for navigation, lights and refrigeration as they sail. Dario says using renewable energy is empowering.

“Because you’re independent,” he says. “You don’t get all the time a bill to pay the electricity, and it’s like when you grow your own salad in the garden, you know? You have a relationship with the energy you produce.”

As daunting as the problems created by climate change can feel, Dario and Sabine say it’s often small steps that make a big difference: using reusable shopping bags, reducing consumption, or “ballast,” as they call it.

It’s a message they’ll continue to spread as they embark on the final phase of their journey, which will ultimately take them to Antarctica.